Caroline Muspratt says offshore call centres have not lived up to their expectations, so change is needed
Offshoring is "short sighted, misguided, not customer focused and all about cost savings," trumpeted the head of insurance broker Swinton last week.
Patrick Smith, chief executive, said Swinton had managed to achieve growth without sending jobs abroad and added that he believed the tide was turning against offshoring in the financial services sector.
There is no doubt that overseas call centres do, on the whole, have a bad name. Anecdotal evidence of misunderstanding and frustration is rife and it was reported recently that Aviva had moved a small number of jobs back from India to the UK.
The move was held up as an admission of failure by those who are skeptical of off-shoring, though the number of jobs affected was small in comparison to the company's total overseas workforce.
Esure has also moved jobs back to the UK and the company has suggested that the trend for outsourcing is doomed.
Whether it is insurance or banking or even finding out the time of your next train, many consumers have dealt with overseas call centres. Those who have a less than ideal experience cite a lack of knowledge about the product in question, the difficulty of understanding the accent of the person they are speaking to and cultural differences.
The first of these can easily be overcome with sufficient training while accent and cultural understanding are more difficult.
There are some hilarious anecdotes doing the rounds. For instance, one customer phoned an Indian call centre to insure his car, telling the call centre operator that he had a hatchback. He was met with concern: "Have you been to the doctor?"
In the case of Aviva, customers phoning to report a broken immersion heater apparently found it difficult to explain their case because immersion heaters are almost unheard of in India.
On a recent visit to Prudential's call centres in Mumbai, I learned that staff – who are all university graduate level or above – undergo accent neutralisation classes, with teachers flown in from the UK. They also watch television programmes like Friends to pick up nuances and cultural references. Nice work if you can get it.
Clearly offshoring saves money – the average wage in an Indian call centre is about £2,500 – but money has to be invested in training and staff development. There is nothing short sighted or misguided about wanting to save money for the benefit of shareholders, though insurers must be careful to ensure their customers do not suffer and go elsewhere.
Insurers that run their own call centres offshore, but do not outsource, are often better placed to keep their customers happy.
They can control training and offer staff incentives to perform well. It is perhaps outsourcing rather than offshoring that is a cause for concern, particularly when saving money is the sole motivation to go down this route.
But no matter how well trained and well spoken overseas call centre operators are, no matter how many episodes of Friends they have watched, there will always be customers who resent the fact that they are talking to someone in another country.
There will always be companies that hold up their UK-based call centres as a matter of virtue, but anyone who has struggled to understand a regional accent in the UK will wonder if that is necessarily such a good thing. IT
Caroline Muspratt is insurance correspondent at The Daily Telegraph